Why Ron Paul is dangerous – and why he’s not
For followers of US politics, Ron Paul, a 76-year-old congressman from Texas, is a strange figure. He’s running for president, a member of the Republican Party of long standing, yet he’s a man apart from the rest of the field, a near-pariah in much of the media, considered a non-entity by many and a kook by others. And despite all this, he has finished second and third in the Republican presidential primaries so far, rising quietly to crush establishment favourites like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.
You may be asking who he is and what he stands for. You may be wondering why he’s so comparatively unheralded, and why he’s not considered in the same serious breath as the opponents he is so effortlessly leaving for dust. You may even be wondering whether he’s a threat; in short, he’s a libertarian. You’ve probably heard the word, but you may not know what one of those really is.
Once upon a time, when Facebook first launched in Britain, it asked you for your political affiliation in a neat little drop-down. This contained the usuals: conservative, liberal, communist, etc. There was another option that loads of my friends picked at first – ‘libertarian’. These were all good lefties, and they had all made the assumption that this unfamiliar word made them sound leftier than left. They were wrong. Though it looked like a higher-falutin’ and therefore stronger version of the word ‘liberal’, it took a politics undergraduate to point out that it actually meant something different, and unless they were paranoid, far-right survivalists, they should probably change their preferences.
It’s not really a surprise that these otherwise bright, hyper-informed young students made the mistake though. Many of them still would, seven years later. Libertarianism is a curiously American affliction, which never really took hold on the British political psyche. We may not be as left-wing a country as the intelligentsia or I would like, but we’ve been weaned on a solid welfare state and we do not share the radical mean streak of US politics, or ‘rugged individualism’ as their furious circumlocution would have it.
Radical and mean libertarianism most certainly is. It’s the politics of pure selfishness, even more than Thatcherism. It’s an economic theory based in the main on the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, a Russian émigré to the US in the early 20th Century, who bought wholesale into the American Dream, and whose ideas were basically an attempt to legitimise her overwhelming sense of superiority. Simply put, objectivism states that creators, innovators and other ‘great men’ owe nothing to the human heard whom they supposedly support, and that they are justified in exploiting them.
Applied economically, it amounts to denying people a living wage purely by dint of the fact that the industrialists were savvy or lucky enough to make their money. It’s all dressed up in portentous language about personal liberty and the rights of the individual, but in practice, libertarian economics is mostly about giving rich men the freedom to get richer without any government to regulate them into giving rights, protections or dignity to their employees.
It is exactly as cruel and unusual a philosophy as it sounds. Libertarianism is to conservatism what communism is to social democracy; both exist on the left-right continuum in a certain way, but they’re both so extreme they’ve fallen off the edge. Libertarianism is the rightist id pushed to its logical conclusion, the politics of pure selfishness.
And yet it casts a long shadow over American politics. Ever a rightist’s paradise, the philosophy is the American Dream distilled – make loads of money without worrying about the trampled poor.
Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and therefore one of the most influential economists in the last 30 years, was a Randian devotee, a longstanding member of her salon. The GOP endorses libertarian economic principles whether it admits to it or not, and it dominates the whole discourse. So while Paul is labelled a kook by the establishment, it’s only really because he’s honest about what he wants.
He is still dangerous though, not least because his ideological commitment to textbook libertarianism prompts his desire to abolish institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and even the Federal Reserve, while advocating a return to the Gold Standard. His rivals have pledged similar things, just to keep time with the slavering loons who’ll be voting for them, but they don’t have Paul’s manic enthusiasm.
The real danger from Paul, though, is his religion. God was never a part of Rand’s blueprint. She rejected it, most likely because it’s easier to justify madcap selfishness if you don’t have a cosmic chaperone breathing down your neck. But her vision has been mingled thoroughly into the American political bloodstream, whose other great pathogen is incessant, militaristic God-bothering. Paul represents one outcome of this miscegenation – an objectivist theocrat, welding two of America’s ugliest tendencies under one oxymoronic umbrella.
So while he hullabaloos libertarian principals like ‘States’ Rights’ – taking as many governing decisions from the Federal Government as possible – when challenged about his stance on abortion, it boils down to allowing the more religious southern states the legal right to do what they want: banning it entirely, alongside contraception for good measure.
This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have any good ideas. He wants to slash the military and bring the troops home, for instance, even as his opponents compete to sound the most bloodthirsty on Iran. This is why so many college-aged Americans love him, and it would be a great idea if he wanted to divert all this extra money into healthcare or social security or bridge-building, rather than gutting these plans too.
But here’s why he isn’t dangerous. He’s an ideologue, and pure, unmasked libertarianism isn’t to the taste of the majority of the US. It’s too cruel, even for them. Paul is polling as well as he ever will. His passionate 23% in New Hampshire is everyone who supports him, and he just doesn’t have the appeal to win centrists to his callous cause. He has a hyper-involved fanbase, largely young men doomed to stalk the earth as perpetual 17-year-old boys, totally blind to social reality, all howling at once about their right to smoke cannabis. They’re obsessed with returning the country back to how it was meant to be in the Constitution, as though a 300-year-old document written by people unable to predict the future could ever be a sound basis for 21st Century government.
This article has been edited to change Paul’s age to 76, and to say that he actually finished third rather than second in the Iowa caucus.Tagged in: Libertarianism, politics, presidential election, Ron Paul, usa
Recent Posts on The Foreign Desk
- Pressure on Narendra Modi to deliver after impressive oratory at Delhi’s Red Fort
- Modi and Jaitley have yet to make their mark
- New books tell tales of India’s crony capitalism, defying crony warnings
- Narendra Modi makes his first big prime ministerial speech in English
- Modi spoke good English in 2001 - and looked like a future leader
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter